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Published on July 8th, 2016 | by admin

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Off Osa’s beaten path: a new, human-centric way to travel Costa Rica’s wildest peninsula

BY ANDY WRIGHT

The gold miner was attired for heat and mud in high rubber boots, belted black shorts, a brimmed hat and nothing else. We had been hiking through the humid Osa Peninsula jungle for a couple of hours when we ran into him. A chance encounter with five sweaty hikers and their guide on a remote trail didn’t seem to phase the mustachioed prospector, who greeted us cheerfully as if we had an appointment. It was hard to believe he’d been in the jungle for nearly two weeks. His pack was a limp plastic sack with backpack straps sewn to it that held little. But from inside it he plucked a tiny paper package and carefully unwrapped it while we crowded around. Inside was a pinch of gold flakes so airy it was hard not to think of the worst – God forbid a city slicker should sneeze and blow his haul onto the jungle floor. (It was likely he had a more substantial stash he didn’t feel like showing off to tourists.) We oohed and ahhed as he repackaged his gold, shouldered the bag and disappeared down the leafy trail with a grin and a wave. “Was that planned?,” my friend whispered to me.

It wasn’t, but it was exactly the kind of encounter Caminos de Osa, a bold new travel initiative, would like to see more of in the Osa Peninsula. The southwest region of Costa Rica is best known for famously biodiverse Corcovado National Park, which teems with flora, fauna and the hikers who want to look at them. The park is a financial boon for the country, but has left behind the rural communities surrounding it. Around 48,000 people entered the park in 2015, but the money travelers spend is often funneled to tour operators, hotels and restaurants owned by outsiders. The ambitious goal of Caminos de Osa is to build a human-centric tourism economy in a place where plants and animals rule.

“People rarely get to see the communities in the area outside their hotel,” says Ximena Apestegui, director of the Caminos de Osa project and consultant at RBA Group, a Costa Rica based consulting agency focused on sustainable businesses.

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This fact was a constant frustration to the Costa Rica-United States Foundation for Cooperation (CRUSA), a non-profit that promotes sustainable development and has been working on the peninsula for years.

They wanted to team up with someone who had business acumen, like RBA, to empower locals to profit from tourism. The two groups joined forces and in 2014 the Caminos de Osa program was officially formed. Today the group boasts several bold name sponsors, including Stanford University.

The idea is simple: international travelers already flock to the Osa Peninsula to trek through Corcovado, so why not offer them a unique hiking experience in the little-explored wilderness and towns surrounding it? Not long after forming, Caminos de Osa decided that planning distinct hiking routes throughout the area with stops at locally owned attractions would solve a hefty marketing problem by allowing them to promote destination packages, instead of dozens of individual businesses.

An inaugural group of 25 people from six different communities was recruited to go through a yearlong business bootcamp. Participants received training in business skills, leadership and marketing and were paired with experienced mentors from the local tourism industry.

Right now, Caminos de Osa is in the midst of rolling out three main trails: Camino de Selva (Jungle Path), focused on the region’s rich plant life, Camino de Agua (Water Path), traversing the picturesque Drake Bay coastline, and Caminos de Oro (Gold Path), a trek through rural countryside known for its history of traditional goldmining. (Gold-mining had been outlawed in Costa Rica to preserve the environment, but for many it is still the most lucrative local pursuit. Another bonus of the Caminos de Osa program is that it offers legitimate business opportunities to those whose lifelong careers have been outlawed.)

The Gold Path is the trail I followed for five days in March, and for tourists obsessed with experiences unglossed by luxury-obsessed tour operators, Caminos de Osa delivers in volume.
We stayed with local families in farmhouse bunk beds, open-air jungle cabins and in a lodge perched by a lake dotted with herons. We ate tender, garlicky chicken, rice and beans, fried patties of plantain and drank sweet fruit juices. Our hosts pointed out things that, alone, we would have blithely ignored, such as an insect chrysalises born aloft by the breeze, sweet, yellow fruits plucked from the ground for a snack, and spiny fronds used as natural shavers by indigenous tribes.

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Caminos de Oro collected the Best International Active Tourism award at the 2016 International Tourism Fair in Madrid, Spain and the accolade is deserved. Our days started before 6am and involved viewing the region’s verdant vistas from every possible conveyance. We rode horses up mountainsides, kayaked, canoed and motor-boated through rivers, and traveled dirt roads by Jeep and bicycle. I hiked miles a day, marinating in sweat, which I washed away in cold showers before falling into deep, well-earned sleep.

Although the organization has been through trial runs, like the one I participated in, the trails are not quite ready for the public. They are still in the process of training guides in materials prepared by anthropologists and other experts. The group also plans to install trail signage to provide area facts and distance markers. The plan is to open the trails to tourists in December and run one tour a month, closing up shop from September through November for the rainy season. The estimated cost will range between $300 and $900.

“These communities receive so little income that with just one group of eight tourists, they can live an entire month,” Apestegui says.

In addition to the three main trails, Caminos de Osa plans to offer a variety of other tours, including day trips for those who prefer to stay in the luxury of a hotel. The group is also in talks to créate a special entrance to Corcovado, melding their human mission with conservation. In the long term, RBA and its partners don’t envision Caminos de Osa as a paternal organization; all of the business training and mentoring is in the hopes that they will leave the reigns in the hands of the local communities.

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“At the end of the day, they’re going to be the ones to continue the project once RBA isn’t there,” says Apestegui. On our last day, we ended a ten-mile trek through the jungle – sliding on our butts down steep parts, splashing through a cool river – at a mountainside resort. Lounging poolside I overheard a bikinied college student from the southern United States lamenting the lack of “real” experiences offered up on holidays. “Real” is a sticky Word when it comes to tourism, but if by “real” she meant she wanted to delight in unplanned encounters and spread her money around to people who have lived and worked in the Osa Peninsula for decades, Caminos de Osa is a gold mine.

Book your flight to Puerto Jiménez at Nature Air.


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